- Yin Seo
Prepare for Your Small Claims Court Hearing
Updated: Oct 29, 2022
After filing the claim and serving the other party, you now have to prepare for your trial hearing. This is the last and most important step to winning your case against the other party.
Before your hearing
Plan your logistics
Plan your route to the courthouse to ensure you know how to get there and how long it will take you.
Locate the appropriate parking lot.
Know how to get from the parking lot to the courthouse (some parking lots are separated from the courthouse).
Locate the courtroom inside the courthouse.
Schedule care for your children, pets, or other dependents for the day of your hearing, if necessary.
Be sure you have a clean and presentable outfit to wear. This could be a suit if you own one, a pair of clean jeans and a collared shirt, or your work uniform.
Call or text any witnesses you are using to see if they can attend your trial. If they are unable to attend, ask if they can provide a witness statement for you to use as evidence.
Practice and Polish your Presentation
Organize all of your evidence and know where to find everything if the judge has questions.
Practice telling your case and explaining how you calculated any damages. Write down any notes or reminders that might help you when presenting your case at trial.
Depending on your local rules, you may have to go through mediation before you present your case in front of the judge. Think in advance whether you will be willing to mediate and settle the case. Think about whether there is an amount you would accept to settle the claim and avoid trial.
If possible, attend small claims court well before your trial to get a sense of what to expect at your trial.
Pack your bag the day before:
Bring: your evidence and at least two extra copies for the judge and defendant(s).
Don’t bring anything that would not make it through security: a pocket knife, pepper spray, or any item that might be considered a weapon .
Call or text any witnesses you are using to confirm they will be at your trial.
Leave for court with plenty of time to park, find the courtroom, and read over your case and evidence before you present to the judge.
Your day in court
When you Get to Court
Prepare to pay for parking, some courthouses may offer free parking, but not always.
Find your courtroom so that you can wait for your case to be called. If you can’t find your courtroom, ask a security guard or someone at the information desk.
When you get to your courtroom, it may not be open yet so the doors will be locked. When the courtroom is ready to begin proceedings, you will need to check-in. Oftentimes, check-ins are conducted via a roll call by the clerk or the bailiff. Feel free to ask any court officer to make sure you follow proper protocols.
When your Trial Begins
If the defendant is present, you may be asked to mediate and resolve the case without a hearing.
Mediation will likely happen in a different room.
It is an informal process where a trained mediator tries to help you and the other party reach a compromise.
If mediation fails, the mediator will inform the judge that you are ready for trial and you will wait for the judge to call your case.
If the defendant does not show up, it’s very likely you will still have to present your side of the case.
When it’s Your Turn to Speak
Court is very formal, so be sure to act accordingly. Always address the judge as “Your Honor”.
As the plaintiff, you will usually be asked to speak first, or the judge will direct questions directly to you at the start. While presenting your case, do not interact with the Defendant, and only direct yourself to the Judge.
When you are done giving your opening statement, offer the judge and defendants a copy of your evidence.
Be prepared for the judge to interrupt you with questions. If this happens, do not interrupt the judge, immediately answer the judge’s questions.
Remember, all you need to do is think about your case and answer honestly. If you don’t know an answer, you can simply tell the judge that you don’t know.
One way you can try to anticipate questions that the judge may ask you is to pay close attention to the questions that the judge asks the defendant.
Don’t worry if you do not get the opportunity to say everything at the start. Answering the judge’s questions is the main priority.
The judge may rule on the case at the end of your trial, but more likely, you will get the results in the mail. Even if the judge does rule in your favor at the end of your trial, you will not receive payment from the defendant on the day of court. Instead, the other party will have a certain number of days to pay, file a form requesting to pay over time, or to appeal the case.
After your hearing
If the judge does not rule on the case at the conclusion of the hearing, you will receive a notification in the mail from the court when the decision is made. The court’s official decision is called the judgment.
If the judge rules that the defendant does not owe you any money, the case will be dismissed. You will not be able to appeal this case as the plaintiff.
If the judge rules that the defendant does owe you money (either the full amount plaintiff is asking for or a smaller amount) the judge will enter a judgment against the defendant. This means that you will be collecting the money from the defendant directly after the judgment becomes official. This is most often when you receive the judgment in writing from the court.
If the defendant disagrees with the court’s judgment against them, they may appeal the case. Make sure you hold onto all of your evidence and information to use in case the defendant wants to appeal the case. The deadline to appeal will be included in the judgment you receive in the mail.
Note that there are procedural differences for every state and county, and what's listed here may be different from your local procedures. If you are unsure, contact your court to find out the exact procedures of that court.
NEED HELP WITH YOUR JUSTICE JOURNEY?
The quest for justice is never easy, particularly when it comes to getting your money back. However, thanks to advances in technology, it has become easier. Quest for Justice’s first app, JusticeDirect, is the only app of its kind designed to support people without lawyers resolve their dispute and get their money back, both in and out of court. The first step to getting money back is through a letter demanding payment from the other party JusticeDirect offers customizable demand letters for free. If the letter demanding payment does not work, then the next step is taking them to court. JusticeDirect* will guide users every step of the way through the small claims court process by helping them:
Understand the legal process;
Evaluate the pros and cons that come with taking someone to court;
Generate small claims court forms; and,
Avoid common mistakes when filing your forms and serving notice on the other side.
*Currently, JusticeDirect can only help litigants sue in California’s small claims court.